Research: Transport, nutrient restriction, and effects on health and performance of cattle

This is the last of my posts covering the research currently underway at the EOARC. I’m starting to get really excited to go there, a week from Tuesday I get to leave and start working. So after this post I’ll put in some updates on what I’m doing over there, and return to my normal coverage of article reviews as I have time to read them.

The goal of this proposal is to see if a large part of the stress involved with cattle transport is caused by food and water deprivation, independent of the actual act of transport. I wished I had read this one first, as it contains a glimpse into the overall goals at the station.

“the long-term goal of our research program is to elaborate strategies that prevent stress-related illnesses elicited by routine cattle management procedures and, consequently, promote cattle welfare and productivity.”

Which is pretty much exactly what I want to promote in my later career, wherever that leads me. Its the idea of promoting welfare by working with the system, instead of digging trenches.

I actually learned a bit of immunology from this proposal, it was interesting. I always knew that chronic stress weakened the immune system, but apparently acute stress responses help fend off disease. Proinflammatory cytokines are released with acute stress, with the body assuming a response to a pathogen. The problem there, is that chronic stress (like that associated with transport or feed restriction) causes an unnecessary immune response that depletes resources and opens the animals up to infections like Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD). The purpose of this study is to find new strategies in transport to reduce associated chronic stress and thus incidences of BRD.

54 steers will be separated into three groups, one will be transported continuously for 24 hours, another deprived of food and water for 24 hours at the station, and the last kept at the station with normal food and water access. Stress will be quantified by plasma chem profiles, cortisol, prostaglandin E2,  and various proinflammatory cytokine concentrations.

If it turns out the restriction of feed and water causes a significant amount of similar stress to transport, a discussion can open on new techniques in cattle transport that could potentially alleviate some of this stress. Thus, everyone wins, the cows are less stressed, and the industry loses less money dealing with cases of BRD.

You can read the full proposal here.

 

I’m ready to get over there and get into the thick of the work. I imagine I’ll learn tons more about the previous research carried out at the station that led to these current conclusions. Especially the stuff that hasn’t been published online yet. In addition to my article reviews, I’ll also post a few updates on what it’s like to work over there, and I’ll try to keep them somewhat interesting. There will probably be a gap between posts for a couple weeks while I get all situated (and finish a guest post for another blog). So check back here mid August.

Article Review: Sources of Stress in Captivity, Part II

Took me forever to get around to reading the rest of this article, this last term was pretty heavy. But nonetheless I haven’t forgotten about this thing, and it’s not like I have to keep an update schedule for my breathlessly waiting readers on here. So with that, let’s get back into it.

The second half of the article focused on more biotic and behavioral stressors, still mostly from a zoo perspective. This half was much more interesting, as the abiotic factors discussed in the first half were pretty simple. That’s not to say that they weren’t well explored and there wasn’t any new information presented, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t hard for them to come to the conclusion that if we cook our captive animals on concrete on a hot day that it’ll cause stress. One of the neatest things when they were examining behavioral stress was that they always identified when a certain stressor was used as the definition of stress in other studies. Things such as separation from conspecifics and invasive handling were not only examined, but identified as the state of being “stressed” in other studies.

Both at the beginning and the end of this section they really hit the nail on the head for stress in capitivity.

“…the primary difference between such stimuli in nature and the same stimuli in captivity is in the animal’s ability to control it’s exposure to these stimuli…confinement in captivity brings with it a host of other potential stressors, largely in the form of restricted choice” (Morgan and Tromberg, 2007)

Like in The Matrix, it’s a problem of choice. Whether that’s removal of the choice to retreat from people or animals, of feeding time and meal composition, of which animals it shares space with, of mate selection, and obviously of home range/habitat selection. That’s the reason for stress in captivity as broadly defined as it can be. It makes sense, but they touch upon it again later when they discuss the roles of predictability for environment enrichment. Animals when given a choice will chose a predictable schedule over unpredictability, but there are conflicting results as to which one provides more benefits. Novelty  has been shown to be necessary for environmental enrichment: the provision of toys in stall horses greatly reduces stall vices/stereotypies such as cribbing and swaying. Stereotypies are also reduced in pigs with long pieces of straw to chew (see Grandin for perspective on this behavior). Novelty comes up in the article when discussing controlled things such as feeding and cleaning times, and uncontrolled factors like the number and behavior of visitors to zoos.

Human contact is discussed thoroughly as a stressor and enrichment. Social and domesticated species have been shown to benefit greatly from human contact, however other species display obvious detrimental effects.

“In one review of black rhinocerous breeding success in US zoos, animal mortality was positively correlated with the degree of public access to the animals.” (Morgan and Tromberg, 2007)

The only real trend is that the effect of human contact creates wildly different effects based on its nature. If the contact is social or feed associated, it can be great, but across the board, negative contact whether in treatment, handling, or painful/invasive medical procedures will make future contact with people a negative and stressful experience. The article does take a moment to clarify what they thought created a pleasant experience.

“Part of what pleasant handling appears to involve is meeting the animal on its own terms.” (Morgan and Tromberg, 2007)

Grandin talks about this a lot with how animals approach novelty with caution. They enjoy novelty because it turns on the SEEKING blue ribbon emotion, but if that novelty moves beyond what they’re ready to explore, they crank on the FEAR emotion and the novel thing becomes stressful.

So, given everything examined, how do we fix it? That depends on your goals. If you want to create a zoo/farm that keeps the animals at the same stress level as them living in the wild, you better work at Yellowstone (and even then!). It’s really not going to happen. So let’s say we set some reasonable goals, like wanting to reduce pacing stereotypies in our larger animals. So, how do we identify the stressors in those enclosures?

“Many of the stressors reviewed above produce the same or very similar effects on animals…This ambiguity makes such behavioral and physiological responses unreliable symptoms for troubleshooting a given captive situation” (Morgan and Tromberg, 2007)

All we get is that something is wrong, but have no idea what. It’s like saying a person or animal has nausea, diarrhea, and fever. Helpful, we now know it could be one of a thousand issues that all cause those symptoms, more information is needed to make an appropriate diagnosis. In all honesty, other than some simple species specific observations, it comes down to individuals. Some will do better in captivity than others, and some will respond to changes you make to minimize stress better than others. The article mentions that if your goal is a conservation effort, captivity can promote learned helplessness, which results in the loss of adaptive coping strategies. There’s a lot of issues with conservation efforts: loss of genetic diversity (cheetahs), over-success (grey wolves), and loss of natural adaptability and wild behaviors (pandas). Learned helplessness can be useful or at least non-detrimental with respect to domesticated species, but anything you intend on reintroducing to the wild may have issues.

Perhaps (unless it’s a conservation effort) we should just resign ourselves to the fact that when we put animals in a zoo, we are domesticating them. Part of the lure of the zoo is to see wildlife in a controlled setting, but there’s an oxymoron there. Wildlife is out of our control, deer that have problems giving birth die, and predators won’t discriminate between a keystone species and other food options (oh if only we could keep all the salmon to ourselves). Maybe the new direction should be not to impersonate nature, but promote behaviors that inherently make zoo life less stressful for those animals. The article briefly mentions “contrafreeloading” behavior, in which animals will choose to work for a food reward even when it is offered freely. I want to bring up circus animals and how, even though many inhumane techniques have been used to teach them the tricks they do, many of them have been selected for their willingness to do a shapeable behavior or to work with items. We could be selecting our zoo animals for their willingness to participate with handlers and items, and we could provide enrichment through allowing them to work for their rewards. This is accepted with marine mammal exhibits where wild whales, dolphins, sea lions, and anything else we can seemingly fit in a tank receives enrichment in this way (not to say that swimming stereotypies still don’t exist). You can’t argue that we’re attempting to keep their wild habitat and behaviors with three shows a day jumping through hoops. I would need to read more on the subject to provide a supported discussion, but that’s my feeling. And that’s the end of that article, I highly recommend reading through it, but be prepared for a grind, it’s a long one.

Article Review: Sources of Stress in Captivity, Part I

I’ve been hanging onto this review of literature for a long time, it’s about 40 pages long, so I’ve slowly gotten about half way through in my spare time. I’ve decided to break down my thoughts into two posts, not only for the length of the article, but so that I don’t have to essentially write an essay all at once.

Most of the article is written from a zoo perspective, but they do take time to review bits of literature pertaining to domestic livestock. One of my favorite things about this article so far is how they chose to define stress and stressors.

“Stress will be defined as the experience of having intrinsic or extrinsic demands that exceed an individual’s resources for responding to those demands.”

“A ‘stressor’ is anything that challenges homeostasis…in this case may be an actual physical challenge to homeostasis (such as exposure to a sudden change in temperature, physical restraint, or combat) or the threat of such a challenge (such as a direct stare from a more dominant individual, or the approach of a human with handling gloves). In either case, stressors result in a cascade of physiological events designed to prepare the body for homeostatic challenge – the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response.”

I immediately read that first definition of stress and said to myself “yes, that’s what it is”. Mostly in terms of whenever I want to define how I feel stressed. But in reality, I was much more impressed with the definition provided because “stress” is such a catch all term for essentially anything wrong with an animal or it’s environment. I remember working at the animal shelter and being told that most of the diarrhea we saw in healthy cats and dogs in the shelter was a result of “stress.” While that may have been true in many cases, the employees, myself included, used the word stress to essentially explain any question proposed by visitors regarding abnormal behavior from the animals. We gave them the assumption that we knew something they didn’t, and usually the issue was dropped. Without a clear definition of what exactly “stress” meant to those shelter animals though, we had no way of asking the important question, what is causing this animal to be stressed?

We never thought, other than taking basic care of these animals to maintain health, hygiene, and human contact; about what we should be doing to keep them mentally sound. With all the behavior and minor health issues we crossed off as stress induced, we never made an attempt to cure that. It’s not that we didn’t care, but in hindsight it’s just something that wasn’t explored or audited. When I think about it now there was probably a lot of little things that we could have been done if we had just asked the question, instead of just assuming that all stress was inevitable.

I bring this up because I’m sure that other organizations, whether they be animal shelters, veterinary clinics, small farms, or large animal production facilities might have that same oversight. Just providing yourself with a concrete, identifiable definition of stress causes you to move onto the next big one, what are the stressors?

So far in the article I’ve read the sections on abiotic stressors, which included lighting, ambient temperature, sound (ranges and pressure), odors, and tactile interaction with the environment. These are actually harder to work with in my opinion, biotic factors are easier for us to understand and study from a physiological standpoint. Figuring out the umwelt of different species is something that Temple Grandin says she does by thinking in pictures, but I think it goes beyond that. The sheer amount of Olfactory cues that we can only observe animal reactions to tell me that the sensory overload our livestock animals receive every day is beyond something as simple as changing the lighting alone. It’s like explaining the instant assailment of information that flows into your mind when you look at a classroom. Or trying to explain how (literate) people can see words on highway signs and with a single look compute the meaning of those specific shapes. How can we get into the head of a cow and understand how that whiff of estrus urine translates into information?

Anyway, some of the bigger problems noted in the article were flicker rates in florescent lighting that animals can see, extremely high sound pressure in zoo and agricultural settings from both machinery and people (that doubles what would be found in a natural setting), and problems associated with the materials used to create habitats or bedding. As a potential start to a solution, at the end of the abiotic section they make recommendations on what sort of equipment (and where to get it) should be used to measure these factors and potential stressors. Identification of what we know is the first step, so that new options and unforeseen stressors become more obvious.

I’ll have much more to say on this article in part II, but I’ll leave these preliminary thoughts for now. Look for more on this from me soon.

Newsworthy:PETA upset about Vick on Madden Cover

This one first came from Gamepolitics, my favorite blog (sponsored by the ECA) for free speech issues in today’s most attacked form of media. I then followed a couple links to find a couple new websites I’ll need to discuss later, namely “PETA Kills Animals” and “Humane Watch.” Which are so interesting that they warrant their own post, and I don’t have the time to address those broad issues at the moment.

I’ve got a lot of personal disagreements with PETA, mostly my thoughts on their animal rights stance (and the fact that they also violate those principals) as opposed to a welfare, and many other examples I may go into detail in another post. But on this one I find myself very conflicted on the issue. Regardless how PETA or internet commentators may want to paint it, this isn’t black and white if you allow yourself to consider the consequences from more than just one point of view.

Let me start by saying that I do have a personal hatred for dog fighting. I recognize that it stems from our attraction to violence, just like gladiatorial events in ancient Rome, to boxing and ultimate fighting today. It’s an active choice whether you care about these animals (or roman slaves) or not, and from my personal welfare perspective, I do not think that the torture and abuse these animals suffer is humane or justified in any way. So yes, my view of Michael Vick is biased and negative.

I’m also not a sports person. I can barely name all of the teams in the Pac 10 (or 12, whatever it is next year). I enjoy watching live football when I’m invested in one of the teams, but I don’t really follow the season or have any idea who’s good this year. Nonetheless, from what I’ve heard of Michael Vick is that he’s damn good at what he does, and that he must be talented enough to be welcomed back to the NFL after being such a public relations nightmare.

So here it is, it comes down to what I think the consequences may be if he does end up on the cover (ignoring the madden curse, which could swing the argument either way). Do I think that this will create a bunch of young athletes that think they can break the law or abuse animals and still be successful? Do I think it glamorizes dog fighting in any way? My gut tells me no. I agree that we should hold our role-model athletes to a higher standard, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still people.

So then if I don’t think the award represents those negative values, what does it actually become? Here are the facts: there are 15 other top NFL athletes still in the bracket, Vick is a fantastic football player, he is talented enough that teams will draft him even though they will be attacked by organizations like PETA, ASPCA, and HSUS;  he pled guilty, and he served 21 months in prison.

Vick didn’t get to play football while he was in prison, and he served his house arrest. This honor from madden represents a football accomplishment, and he earned that. Maybe he should have served more time, maybe the punishment didn’t fit the crime, and maybe the abuse and destruction of those animals can never be fully forgiven, but that has nothing to do with his career or his personal success in life. To answer PETA’s question: “Is the Madden cover spot only about athletics and nothing about being a decent person?” I’m going to answer yes. The game is a pile of equations and mechanics related to football skills, and includes nothing about the personal lives or role-model rankings of the players within. To be featured on the cover is a testament to your skill and a statement to the player/purchaser that “this game character is really good at football.”

To be perfectly honest, if I cared enough to vote, I’d probably vote against him for the very same reason that PETA wants me to. My vote would reflect my opinion and make sense to me. PETA wants him removed from the bracket entirely, to deny him that chance to be considered rehabilitated or to win back his fans. With 16 players left and Vick’s history, I very much doubt that he will make it to the cover. But that’s a community decision, not PETA’s. The idea to remove him from the bracket implies that everyone is once a criminal, always a criminal. That not only do you serve the time and punishment for your crime, but your personal success in other endeavors is forfeit. They have no right to take away that persons life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, it’d be as if they opposed Vick getting married (don’t know if he is or not) because he doesn’t deserve to live his life.

“featuring a convicted dog fighter on the cover will send the dangerous message to them that they can commit the most heinous acts of cruelty to animals and still be celebrated and revered” -PETA

I imagine that there are some wealthy people representing PETA who received DUI’s or some other conviction. Should we censor their lives because any success they achieve shows that it’s okay to drive drunk? Or should we allow people to make their own conclusions? I don’t think Vick deserves the honor for my own reasons, but unlike PETA, I’m not going to restrict someone’s rights. Nor would I use censorship to try to prevent others from forgiving them.